Paradise Unplugged: Barriers to Stack Overflow Use for Females

What is Stack Overflow and why do I care?

Stack Overflow is a popular question and answer site that many programmers go to for quick solutions to problems they encounter. Many have referred to it as “a programmer’s paradise”. Though this site is considered “a heaven sent” it is far from a true utopia. There has been much criticism of the lack of female participation on the site. In Stack Overflow’s 2015 and 2016 developer survey only 5.8% of users identified as females. The sad part about this is how often the conversation about this disparity often gets shut down with negative votes and closed as off topic discussions by moderators.

Stack Overflow does acknowledge the disappointing number saying:

Software development has a gender balance problem. Our internal stats 
suggest the imbalance isn't quite as severe as the survey results would
make it seem, but there's no doubt everyone who codes needs to be more 
proactive welcoming women into the field.

There are many movements to get women into programming, but what about keeping them there? If they don’t feel comfortable using the resources that are available for all programmers then that is a big problem for retention in the field. To do our part in being more proactive in welcoming women into the field, we sought to uncover some reasons for this low participation.

What did we do? 

We identified barriers for female contributions on Stack Overflow using semi-structured interviews and surveys to validate these barriers. In this approach, we also found barriers that affected the entire community. As the big picture here is making sure all users feel comfortable using this resource, we also supplement these findings with an outline of potential site design modifications.

How did we do it?

Interviews. In order to find out to figure out what is hindering the community we went straight to the users. We interviewed 22 female users and asked them about their experiences when they posted a comment, edited and times when their activity was not as high. Other questions asked included how people communicate on the site, personal incentives, potential scenarios that may occur when using the site and potential modifications to the site that could increase usage. From our semi-structured interviews we transcribed audio recordings, performed a card sort, and 14 distinct barriers emerged. The 14 barriers are described in the table below.


General Survey. After identifying the barriers we wanted to find out which barriers varied across genders. We distributed the survey to the general developer population. We sent targeted emails, posted to programming forums, contacted large corporations, and posted in computer science Facebook groups. We received responses from 1470 females and males by the time we closed the survey.

With this survey we were able to identify 5 statistically significant barriers that females rated higher than males. These barriers include being aware of site features, not feeling qualified enough to chime in, the large intimidating community size, the discomfort of online strangers, and the perception of slacking on the job. All statistically significant barriers have been starred below in the diverging stacked bar chart of all barriers identified.


Barriers to Stack Overflow usage for females and males. Red star indicates a statistically significant difference (p<.0012)

What Now?

As mentioned before, the ultimate goal is to make sure all users can feel comfortable relying on this resource. Using the results from our interviews and survey, we propose some design choices to consider as Stack Overflow grows to be more popular and inclusive.

5 Min V.S. 30 Min Questions. It is a bit of a task trying to identify which questions will take 5 minutes to answer versus 30 minutes manually. Research is needed to create and sustain a ranking algorithm of questions response time per user’s skill and question difficulty. This features would encourage a wider range of users with varied availability.

Quality Questions. Instead of discouraging users from posting questions, enhance the posting process by automatically providing feedback on the quality of the question in terms of how fast and how likely it will be answered.

Sub-communities. Sub-communities should be an available option to users who are interested in creating a more approachable group to interact with.

Mentorship. Retention of one-day flies and other contributors may increase if  a per user mentorship program is incorporated.

Many of these design choices have been shared with Stack Overflow affiliates and are now in the implementation phase. Keep your eyes peeled to see what Stack Overflow has up their sleeves in the future.

Read More

The formal research paper, Paradise Unplugged: Identifying Barriers for Female Participation on Stack Overflow by Denae Ford, Justin Smith, Philip Guo, and Chris Parnin was recently accepted at FSE, ACM SigSoft International Symposium on the Foundations of Software Engineering. This year’s conference will be taking place in Seattle, Washington from November 13 -19, 2016. A pre-print of the paper is now available online.

Just plain curious about the work? We welcome you to check out the paper,message us with inquiries, or comment below.


3 thoughts on “Paradise Unplugged: Barriers to Stack Overflow Use for Females

  1. Really interesting. As a female, minimally-active, but long-time/frequent reader of SO I definitely went through a ran emotions from of early, naive use, intimidation, empathy, regret, etc. I a period of pretty active answering on another SE board gave me a much better understanding of the source of some frustration (and seeming hostility) for SO power users. The Help Vampire is real, and I can see how it’d be easy to become impatient with that. I really like the question suggestion feature, and when editors take the time to comment with the asker in mind, I think it can make a big difference.


  2. Kudos, this is truly great work.

    What surprised me is that almost all interview participants noted “abstraction process” as a barrier: from personal experience and from conversation with others, this “abstraction process” barrier is specific to beginners (a central part of mastering a technology is in being able to quickly disentangle essential from incidental parts, and to focus a problem down to the essential). This suggests that the interviewee group was not necessarily representative of the general experience of Stack Overflow participants.

    This doesn’t seem to affect the conclusion of the paper however (it’s not significantly different between men and women anyway).

    The fact that this study manages to extract specific differences between male and female users, and distils them into actionable pieces of advice is, in my view, remarkable. Each of the suggestions should be discussed on Meta Stack Overflow. Of these, the sub-communities are already somewhat present due to the ability to browse specific tags. The “quality questions” seems to be technologically challenging. My personal favourite is the “mentorship” suggestion.


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